Trump, French Elections, and the Film “Z” (1969)

Connecting the cultural and political dots, and revisiting a classic film by Costa-Gavras

There’s an old saying that a poem doesn’t mean, but simply is. The saying’s trotted out when folks in English class rambunctiously insist on extracting a prose meaning from a work of poetry — not unlike getting a furball out of a cat by using a brickbat. What’s implied is that poetry is a process, a way of seeing, and that it differs from prose. Try as one might, one may fail to transplant the life of a poem into some other medium.

Like this, really great films may have their subject matter, but what often makes them great is their way of seeing ordinary interactions between people and how the universe works. Yes, there’s a plot and dialogue, and there may be prosaic meanings; but there’s also a certain poetry to filmic images.

So if I tell you the 1969 film Z is a political thriller, don’t misunderstand or imagine it would bore you if you’re not much into politics. Like most great films, it transcends its subject matter by being about people and how the universe works. It remains as fresh and relevant today as it was when released nearly fifty years ago.


Still, I was drawn to revisit Z by a number of prosaic events: the election of Donald Trump, the investigation into political sabotage of U.S. elections, and the final run-off between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in the French race for president, which is being decided as I write.

Then too, I have friends who visited Greece on a spiritual retreat over the Christmas/New Year’s vacation. Z is a French language film based loosely on political events in Greece during the mid-1960s. A French-Algerian production, it was nonetheless directed (and partially written) by Greek émigré Costa-Gavras, with music by Mikis Theodorakis, and Irene Papas in a supporting role.

The film also concerns what we now call “peace studies.” According to Radford University,

Peace studies is a broad, interdisciplinary activity, which includes research, reflection, and dialogue concerning the causes of war, conflict, and violence and the orientation necessary to establish peace…

We are aware today of population explosion, on-going climate collapse, diminishing natural resources, worldwide pollution from both toxic and non-toxic wastes, and the threat of massive, globally devastating wars.

People have realized, in consequence of these planetary developments, that we need to begin thinking about peace in a sustained and substantial way.

Reflection on the causes of war inevitably raises the issue of structural violence (unjust social and economic structures linked with extreme poverty and deprivation) and the issue of imperialism (dominant nations acting aggressively within the world system to promote their perceived national interests). This in turn leads us to ask why soldiers are willing to fight or kill strangers at the command of their governments, and hence to questions of socialization, biology, psychology, etc.

Within the peace studies movement there tend to be two broad approaches to questions of violence, war, and peace. One emphasizes the human individual and his or her consciousness and the paradigms by which he or she might be operating. Change toward peaceful behavior is often emphasized through education, consciousness raising, dialogue, … meditation, or other ways of influencing individual behavior in the direction of more peaceful relationships.

Jump cut to a speech by the pacifist leader from Z:

They hit me. Why? Why do our ideas provoke such violence? Why do they find peace intolerable? Why don’t they attack other organizations? The answer is simple: The others are nationalists used by the government, and don’t upset our Judas allies who betray us.

We lack hospitals and doctors, but half the budget goes for military expenditures. A cannon is fired, and a teacher’s monthly salary goes up in smoke!

That’s why they can’t bear us or our meetings and use hired thugs to jeer and attack us. Around the world, too many soldiers are ready to fire on anything moving toward progress.

But our fight is theirs too. We live in a weak and corrupt society where it’s every man for himself. Even imagination is suspect, yet it’s needed to solve world problems. The stockpile of A-bombs is equal to one ton of dynamite per person on earth.

They want to prevent us from reaching the obvious political conclusions based on these simple truths. But we will speak out! We serve the people, and the people need the truth. The truth is the start of powerful, united action.

The logistics of setting up this speech by the pacifist leader were mind-boggling. His supporters couldn’t get a permit, and every time they hired a hall the owner would later cancel to due government pressure.

After giving his speech, the pacifist leader was seriously injured in a further attack. A doctor told his wife: “I knew your husband. We were at school together. I wanted to go on his Peace Marathon, but it was banned.”

Jump cut to the testimony of Assani and Paule, Marseilles, 29 March, 2000:

We organize a cultural event each year called the International Peace Run which is open to everyone. Hundreds of thousands of people in the world participate each year and France is the only country that has refused, several times, to grant passage to the runners. “Anti-cult” individuals follow the course of the race. This year they were in a car taking pictures. They intervene as late as possible on the eve of the event so it’s too late for us to do anything about it.

We organized a Sri Chinmoy concert in 1991 in the ‘Parc des Expositions,’ with approval from City Hall. When I requested approval to hold a concert in the same park in 1995, it was denied. The park managers told me: “We don’t have a problem with you. Last time you behaved decently and paid. But we can’t get approval from City Hall because you are part of this list.”

Last year we organized a concert in Paris. A friend told me, “The district City Hall called me. They tried to convince me you were awful people, but it didn’t work. Don’t worry.”

For other events, we did manage to obtain a stadium. The sports manager at City Hall is a real friend and he participates in our runs. He knows us so well he forgot we are portrayed as a dangerous cult and he gave us approval for regular races, once a month. So we started passing out flyers to invite people to a race. The next day a newspaper ran an article entitled: “The cult is running.”

http://www.coordiap.com/Gtemo04.htm

In Z, the opposition has to struggle against authoritarianism and mindless bureaucracy. But sadly, these things can thrive in both right and left-wing governments. That’s why I favour liberal democracies which genuinely guarantee (in both principle and practice) the rights of minorities, whether political or spiritual. France, in its idealized form, is such a bastion of freedom. But at times it has to struggle to live up to its ideals.

The past is dust, and perhaps the runners have made progress in recent years. I do not mean to single out France for criticism. It’s a beautiful country, and I greatly admire the French people for their intelligence, sophistication, language, and culture.

Yet, in recent decades France has seen the emergence of a type of forced secularism which tries to eliminate all forms of religion or spirituality from the public square, or from public expression. This stems from an extreme secular view which sees religion and spirituality only as a source of conflict, but fails to recognize in them a source of peace, compassion, and ideals of self-giving.

This problem is not unique to France, but is a tragedy of the modern world, in which the very real benefits of science and intellectual progress at times eclipse the spiritual aspect, which is also very real, essential to human happiness, and a natural part of life.

In France, this trend toward secularism has led to laws restricting religious garb. If you’re wearing a hijab, sari, or yarmulke, you might face (legalized) job discrimination, or be barred from using public facilities.

As an American, perhaps I’m naïve. While it’s true that religion can be a source of conflict, so can food. Trying to solve the problem of conflict over different religious beliefs by banning religion from the public square is like trying to solve the problem of people quarreling over food by starving them to death.

When it comes to the French presidential election now being decided, I believe religious and spiritual minorities will fare better under a President Macron than a President Le Pen. According to an article in The Guardian:

In her apartment in a northern suburb of Paris, Hanane Charrihi looked at a photograph of her mother Fatima. “Her death shows that we need tolerance more than ever,” she said. “Tolerance does exist in France, but sometimes it seems those who are against tolerance shout the loudest and get the most airtime.”

Fatima Charrihi, 59, a Muslim grandmother, was the first of 86 people to be killed in a terrorist attack in Nice last summer when a lorry driver ploughed into crowds watching Bastille Day fireworks. She had left her apartment and gone down to the seafront to have an ice-cream with her grandchildren. Wearing a hijab, she was the first person the driver hit in the gruesome attack claimed by Islamic State. A third of those killed in the Nice attack were Muslims. But Fatima Charrihi’s family, some wearing headscarves, were insulted by passersby who called them “terrorists” even as they crouched next to their mother’s body under a sheet at the site of the attack. “We don’t want people like you here any more,” a man outside a café told her family soon after the attack.

Hanane Charrihi, 27, a pharmacist, was so irked to find that, even after her mother’s death, the so-called “problem” of Islam in France was such a focus of political debate that she wrote a book, Ma mère patrie, a plea for living together harmoniously in diversity. The far-right Front National gained a slew of new members in Nice after the attack and now Marine Le Pen’s presence in the final presidential runoff this weekend – after taking a record 7.6 million votes in the first round – has pushed the issue of Islam and national identity to the top of the agenda.

“I’m French, I love my country, and it seemed like people were saying to me: ‘No, you can’t possibly love France,’” Hanane Charrihi said. “All this focus on debating national identity by politicians seems like wasting time that could be focused instead on unemployment, work or housing.”

The runoff between the far-right, anti-immigration Le Pen and the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron has seen heated exchanges over Islam and national identity. In 2015, Le Pen was tried and cleared of inciting religious hatred after comparing Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation. Macron has insisted that Le Pen still represents “the party of hatred.” He told a Paris rally this week: “I won’t accept people being insulted just because they believe in Islam.”

This makes for a rather easy segue into Trump World and the Muslim ban. So easy, in fact, that I won’t waste much time on it except to say that right-wing populist movements, whether American or European, find it easy to paint targets on the heads of religious and spiritual minorities.

In reviewing Z for flickfeast.co.uk, Miguel Rosa writes:

Z is not an easy film to watch. For anyone who loves freedom, many scenes will feel like vicious punches to the stomach. Several times I shuddered at the injustices being committed with impunity. The film is not a celebration of freedom and truth, but rather an elegy for these important but fragile values. Costa-Gavras turned the tragedy of his country into a grim parable about something that can happen anywhere.

I’m afraid I only partially agree. I see tremendous idealism in Z. True, that idealism is dashed, but in such a way as to make the viewer long for truth and freedom even more strongly. Z is also filled with poignant observations about the human condition and the experience of grieving for a beloved person, plus rollicking satire on the officiousness and self-importance of military brass, who get their comeuppance in the end (or do they?).

Z is not by any stretch of the imagination a religious film, but it does portray the veritable crucifixion of a pacifist political leader (played so well by Yves Montand). That crucifixion does not mark the end of a movement, but the beginning of one — or at least its re-dedication. Indeed, the film’s unique one-letter title derives from the fact that the Greek letter Zeta — signifying “He lives” or “He is immortal” — was banned (as graffiti) by the right-wing dictatorship which took control of Greece in 1967.

With so much art and culture scrapped by the incoming junta, many left-leaning Greeks did in fact flee to France and other nations where the political and cultural climate was more hospitable. They told their story with passion, and became a force for positive change. In this sense they were like disciples of the crucified Greek parliamentarian Grigoris Lambrakis (on whom the film is based), spreading his message of peace to the Greek diaspora, not unlike the apostle Paul.

This photo of Grigoris Lambrakis marching alone in the banned Marathon–Athens Peace Rally one month before his death evokes the Christian symbol of the cross.

The re-enacted scene from Z

Fifty years after the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, anti-fascist Greek rapper Pavlos Fyssas was murdered by a member of Golden Dawn — a far right Greek political party. This brings to mind the saying that history doesn’t repeat itself, but (like poetry) sometimes rhymes. The photo is striking, not least because it forms a pietà.

Another pietà, this one courtesy Doctor Who.

The best-known pietà, by Michelangelo.

I’ve seen a number of political thrillers, and none of them has the passion of Z combined with such brilliant directing, acting, cinematography, plus vibrant musical direction by Mikis Theodorakis, whose instructions were smuggled out of Greece (since he himself was under house arrest at the time).

Z IS is a celebration of freedom and truth. That the celebration is cut short in its final hours is but a bittersweet reminder that to establish anything resembling freedom and truth on earth is a constant struggle, and there will often be setbacks.

Despite being about politics, Z is one of the best art films of the sixties, an absolute must-see for a new generation which may not have heard of it. It’s a film belonging distinctly to the modern era, striking for its use of flashbacks and depictions of the same events from multiple viewpoints a la Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

For political junkies, the relevance of Z to today’s controversies lies foremost in the character of the inquest judge or magistrate (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant). His role is similar to a special prosecutor or independent counsel. He’s a member of the ruling party, and is inclined to accept the explanation proffered by police that the injury to the pacifist leader was no more than a drunk driving incident.

As today with Trump and Russia, no proof of collusion, but plenty of coincidences! So will the magistrate have the determination and perspicacity to see the investigation through? Can he really be impartial, or will he bend to the ruling party? If he gets too close to the truth, will he be fired by the monarch like FBI director James Comey?

Another important character is the photojournalist (Jaques Perrin, who co-produced). At first he seems cynical and opportunistic (we hate him when he barges in on the widow, Nikon motor drive whirring all the while), but gradually he displays kindness and devotion to truth. His own investigation uncovers facts which he brings to the attention of the magistrate. In this sense, Z is like All The President’s Men and JFK rolled into one, but is better than either. It’s an extraordinarily decent film which only improves with repeated viewings. It has more passion than All The President’s Men, reveals a broader spectrum of humanity, has better character development, and unlike JFK never descends into needless vulgarity.

Another example of character development is the fig seller, Barone. We initially see him as a thug keen to participate in vigilante violence. Later we come to pity him when we find that he’s illiterate, powerless, loves his birds, and is desperately afraid of the police Colonel who manipulates him to do his dirty work.

The biggest question mark is always the figure of the magistrate, who seems impassive, unemotional, and skeptical of opposition claims. Yet, his legal training inclines him toward precision and objectivity. Had he been investigating Nixon, he would undoubtedly have fallen victim to the famed “Saturday Night Massacre.”

In the 1960s and 70s, as governments became subject to greater public scrutiny for corruption and malfeasance, an existing genre — the police procedural or detective story — was expanded to encompass the activities of journalists and prosecutors investigating government itself. Thus, Z is (among other things) a cracking good detective yarn with a plot twist at the end. Like most good detective yarns, it leads the viewer through different strata of society, from elite government officials, to a private vigilante group called CROC, to the daily lives of merchants and tradesmen struggling to survive, and (of course) left-leaning peace activists.

For modern day political junkies, another connection between Z World and Trump World is the bizarre speech given by General Missou (Pierre Dux) in the opening scene. He claims the nation is under attack from ideological mildew brought on by parasitic agents. With the arrival of beatniks, Dutch Provos, and pacifists, sunspots appear on the face of the golden orb. God refuses to enlighten the Reds. It’s a delightfully funny crackpot theory worthy of one of Trump’s political appointees to the Department of Redundancy Department (or the Veterans Tapdance Administration).

The passion and suasive power of Z is partly a function of the times it reflects: a point in the late 60s when there was still a strong streak of unalloyed idealism about the prospects for peace, and when it seemed much easier to tell the goodies from the baddies than it later became. The activists in Z aren’t perfect, but we like them because they’re courageous, idealistic, and genuinely committed to peace — even if they’re sometimes tempted to tear up the town out of sheer frustration. The demise of their leader leads them to deep soul-searching.

Then too, Z evokes archetypes from the 60s which no one who lived through that period (even as a pre-teen, as I did), can forget. As a twelve-year-old in June 1968, I stayed up all night watching reports from the hospital as doctors tried in vain to save the life of Robert Kennedy, who had been shot just after giving a victory speech in California, where he had won the presidential primary. I still remember the haggard face of Kennedy aide Frank Mankiewicz, who finally issued a brief statement:

So many of the figures who worked toward peace had great heart, and this theme is explored in Z through a heartbeat sound made by percussion instruments, and repeated reference to the strength and resilience of the pacifist leader’s heart, which continues to beat and refuses to quit.

Z had a super successful run in America, where it received Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Film Editing, and was also nominated for Best Picture. I’m sure that for many Americans it evoked all too recent memories of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.

I’ve only skimmed the surface of Z, using it as an excuse to branch out into other matters. But that’s what a good poem does, too. It narrows your focus to details about the human condition, and that narrow focus somehow possesses the ability to widen into a view which takes in the entire universe. Puzzling, is it not?

You can view the complete film in many places, including Amazon Prime and Netflix rental.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


Sidebar: More Z Apocrypha

Costa-Gavras on Z (brief WNYC interview)

“Lambrakis is gone, but his legacy lives on!” by Nicolas Mottas
https://www.opednews.com/Diary/Lambrakis-is-gone-but-his-by-Nicolas-Mottas-090518-795.html

Z, The Novel

The film is actually based on the novel by Vassilis Vassilikos (who is not the inventor of Vaseline):

Z, the novel, front cover

Z, the novel, back cover

(Definitely a bargain at 95 cents.)

CROC vs. KROC

In Z, the vigilante group used by the government to attack left-leaning pacifists is called CROC, or Christian Royalist Organization against Communism. Ironically, today there’s a KROC INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE STUDIES at the University of Notre Dame. (No, the picture on their home page is not a Cialis ad.) The pressing question per the film? Are they for football?

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Film buffs have noticed that in the scene where pacifists hand out flyers announcing their new rally location, a large peace emblem covers a French signboard for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This was a 1966 “spaghetti western” starring Clint Eastwood and featuring senseless violence:

French poster for “Le Bon, la Brute et le Truand”

When the goons attack the pacifists, an injured man is seen lying on the signboard. A woman tries to help him up, but is kicked in the posterior. In retrospect, this almost seems like a metaphor for Trumpcare. 😉

This is not just movie trivia, but reveals the visual language used by the filmmaker to talk about peace vs. violence. Costa-Gavras is making a dark joke which we won’t get unless we identify the movie poster and know what critics said about the film.

* * *

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In Praise of a Free Press and an Open Society

Restoring sanity to the recent furor over fake news (UPDATED!)

Readers of my blog know that I’m occasionally critical of certain media outlets and figures, notably:

– tabloid TV
– Internet publications which use shock headlines as clickbait
– publishers, literary agents, and agencies which profiteer off false stories pandering to populist prejudices
– commercial bloggers like Edwin Lyngar who are rabidly and offensively anti-religious, but who nonetheless insist on doing hatchet jobs on spiritual figures.

Now, in criticizing the above, I usually focus on particular stories which are either horribly biased, or which genuinely rise to the level of fake news. In fact, in two of my posts on the subject, I quoted from Caitlin Dewey’s series in the Washington Post on “What was fake on the Internet this week.” Ms. Dewey writes:

[W]here a willingness to believe hoaxes once seemed to come from a place of honest ignorance or misunderstanding, that’s frequently no longer the case. Headlines like “Casey Anthony found dismembered in truck” go viral via old-fashioned schadenfreude — even hate.

There’s a simple, economic explanation for this shift: If you’re a hoaxer, it’s more profitable. Since early 2014, a series of Internet entrepreneurs have realized that not much drives traffic as effectively as stories that vindicate and/or inflame the biases of their readers. Where many once wrote celebrity death hoaxes or “satires,” they now run entire, successful websites that do nothing but troll convenient minorities or exploit gross stereotypes. Paul Horner, the proprietor of Nbc.com.co and a string of other very profitable fake-news sites, once told me he specifically tries to invent stories that will provoke strong reactions in middle-aged conservatives. They share a lot on Facebook, he explained; they’re the ideal audience.

As manipulative as that may seem, many other sites are worse: there’s Now8News, which runs outrageous crime stories next to the stolen mugshots of poor, often black, people; or World News Daily Report, which delights in inventing items about foreigners, often Muslims, having sex with or killing animals.

Needless to say, there are also more complicated, non-economic reasons for the change on the Internet hoax beat. For evidence, just look at some of the viral stories we’ve debunked in recent weeks: American Muslims rallying for ISIS, for instance, or Syrians invading New Orleans. Those items didn’t even come from outright fake-news sites: They originated with partisan bloggers who know how easy it is to profit off fear-mongering.

Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.

— Caitlin Dewey, “What was fake on the Internet this week,” The Washington Post

From her thoughtful analysis, it’s clear that there are definite criteria for identifying what is fake news and what (by contrast) may be completely genuine news which is disliked by an incoming administration — not because it’s fake, but because it’s true. When politicians go on a blitzkrieg of falsehood, it behooves the news media to up their truth-squading activities. (See Maragret Sullivan in The New York Times here.)

Media analysis yields few binaries, so there is perhaps a gray area where extremely poor reporting may somewhat resemble fake news. Also, in advocacy journalism the facts are slanted to make the case the writer wants to make, yet there is usually some underlying factual basis, however thin.

Her Blooming Cheek…

Let me shift gears for a moment and explain why I’m writing about this. Over the course of history, a perfectly valid form of expression may be undermined by later developments in language. A classic example is the presence in some 18th and 19th century literature of lines like these:

And now, as gazing o’er the glassy stream,
She saw her blooming cheek’s reflected beam,
Her tresses brighter than the morning sky,
And the mild radiance of her sparkling eye,

— Sir William Jones, from “The Palace of Fortune”

Or these:

A fair one next stepped forth to view
More fully form’d; more high the hue
That glow’d upon her blooming cheek,
Which seem’d more ripen’d age to speak;

— Mrs. Henry Rolls, from “The Banquet of Spring”

Or these:

The sun himself loses his countenance
Before her blooming cheek…

— Christian Dietrich Grabbe, from Cinderella (Aschenbrödel)

This last would surely strike any modern Briton as a reference to Kellyanne Conway!

Many more references could be unearthed, including one from Mr. Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. However, developments in cockney English (e.g., “Of all the blooming cheek!”) have rendered such lines vaguely comical in retrospect, and reciting them in a cockney accent only adds to this perception.

With the equally comical (yet terrifying) entrance of Donald Trump onto the world stage, my previous articles discussing “fake news” are thrown into some disarray by the latter’s mongrelization of the term as an epithet for any news report (however factual) he simply doesn’t like.

He may have short fingers, but those fingers now obsessively clasp a huge megaphone from which he blasts mind-numbing alternative facts aggrandizing his own accomplishments, coupled with wholesale attacks on “the media” for not being able to sufficiently camouflage their well-earned dislike of him.

Bully Pulpit

The phrase “bully pulpit” was originally coined by President Theodore Roosevelt:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, bully pulpit means “a public office or position of authority that provides its occupant with an outstanding opportunity to speak out on any issue.” It was first used by TR, explaining his view of the presidency, in this quotation: “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!” The word “bully” itself was an adjective in the vernacular of the time meaning “first-rate,” somewhat equivalent to the recent use of the word “awesome.” The term “bully pulpit” is still used today to describe the president’s power to influence the public.

“Did You Know? TR, The Story of Theodore Roosevelt”

So it originally meant that the presidency is an awesome soapbox. Some Americans might be surprised to learn that it did not signify “a person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker. Synonyms: persecutor, oppressor, tyrant, tormentor, intimidator.” (So sayeth Google of the bully.)

Unfortunately, Donald Trump uses the presidency in the manner of a bully, intimidating those members of the press who dare to ask him tough questions (sometimes even simple questions) about his policies and actions. After viewing a particularly bizarre presser held by Mr. Trump on February 16, 2017 — an event described by some as a Festivus airing of grievances — a shocked John Dean said: “I’ve never seen a more classless president.” Dean, of course, served as White House Counsel to President Richard Nixon.

So I want to clarify that while I’m occasionally critical of some media outlets, I don’t consider the media to be my enemy, nor the enemy of the American people as Mr. Trump recently tweeted:

trump_tweet_enemy_people_revised

He has sullied the waters by creating a caricature of the position opposing fake news so carefully carved out by Caitlin Dewey and others who have investigated the phenomenon of fake news, and who understand its subtleties.

Fake news does exist, and is developed primarily on sites which specialize in fake news, and on partisan blogs. It’s often spread via Facebook or Twitter. But the mainstream media generally try to avoid fake news. While one can question the accuracy, objectivity, and completeness of the view one gets from mainstream media, most mainstream journalists do try to separate fact from fiction, and don’t knowingly concoct fake stories. There are exceptions of course, but when caught, reporters engaging in outright fraud (e.g. Jason Blair) tend to be fired or forced to resign.

Even tabloid or “yellow” journalism, however bad, is usually based on actual sources. The sources may be unreliable, and the facts not carefully checked, but there’s usually a distinction between poor quality journalism and outright fakery.

So why does Mr. Trump keep repeating “Fake news, fake news” like a mantra? This is an example of preemptive framing. The Trump administration is itself one of the main purveyors of fake news (or at least false facts) in the present period. Attempting to massively discredit the press is a preemptive technique for replacing real facts with “alternative facts,” such as that Mr. Trump would have won the popular vote if not for millions of people voting illegally, or that there was a terrorist attack in Bowling Green, Kentucky (the fictional “Bowling Green massacre” referenced by Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway — she of the “blooming cheek”).

I believe very firmly in a free press and an open society. I also condemn perversions of the English language of the sort discussed in George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” which is required reading in the post-truth era of Trump, along with Orwell’s 1984. (See also NPR’s “With ‘Fake News,’ Trump Moves From Alternative Facts To Alternative Language,” and WAPO’s “‘Fake news’ has now lost all meaning.”)

The Fourth Estate

A free press will often get things wrong, and in a free press it’s rarely possible to enforce a high standard of scrupulosity. News is, moreover, a business. Commercial considerations threaten the quality and accuracy of news in any number of ways. The 24-hour news cycle tends to produce a great deal of “infotainment” of limited value, but “limited value” is not “no value.”

Mainstream media are open to careful, reasoned criticism on many counts, but this does not negate their role as a “fourth estate” — an unofficial but important check on governmental power and abuse. Attempting to discredit the media wholesale is a tactic of tyrants, and it seems more than coincidental that Mr. Trump’s most acidic tongue-lashings (or tweet-lashings) of the press come at a time when his administration is facing increased criticism for alleged Russia ties, and when he’s issuing harsh authoritarian policies by fiat. (And no, Virginia, a fiat is not a blooming car!)

It would be something of a cliché to cite the 1976 film All The President’s Men to illustrate the vital role the press can play in unmasking government abuses. Perhaps less well-known to present day audiences is the 1969 film Z, whose unusual one-letter title derives from the fact that the Greek letter Zeta — signifying “he is alive” — was banned (as graffiti) when a right-wing dictatorship took control of that nation in 1967. If you’re curious why, these two SPOILER clips comprising the end of the film may elucidate:


Though Z is only partly about the role of journalists in ferreting out government abuse, you would observe that when the military junta takes control, it’s quick to ban a free press. (Read Roger Ebert’s contemporaneous review of the film here.)

Power Center

The mainstream media is (among other things) a power center. In a mostly free society, government officials learn to get along with that power center, however uncomfortable such power-sharing arrangements may be. Rachel Maddow recently aired a clip of President Kennedy giving an interview in December 1962, shortly after the Bay of Pigs incident, for which he had taken a major shellacking in the press. Rather than lashing out vindictively, his response was gracious, reasoned, philosophical, and respectful of the role which the media can play in highlighting an administration’s failures:

This is not a democrat vs. republican issue. Fifty-four years later, Sen. John McCain — the paradigmatic Cold Warrior himself — stressed the same points with equal or greater vigour in a February 2017 interview on Meet The Press.

By contrast, Richard Nixon is heard on the infamous White House Tapes to say: “Never forget the press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. The professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard one hundred times and never forget it.” He drilled it into his underlings in a manner no less totalitarian than we might expect to find in communist China at the height of the Cultural Revolution.

Of course, people have a right to adopt any philosophy or creed that they may choose, but when the government imposes it through brute force or bullying, that’s quite a different matter. This point was driven home by the character Toby Ziegler in an episode of The West Wing titled “Isaac and Ishmael”:

There’s nothing wrong with a religion whose laws say a man’s got to wear a beard or cover his head or wear a collar. It’s when violation of these laws becomes a crime against the State and not your parents that we’re talking about lack of choice.

— Toby Ziegler

The Mainstream Media: Not All Sweetness and Light

The mainstream media are subject to their own lapses and even abuses, but this doesn’t make them “the enemy.” Three problems which I cover in greater detail elsewhere are that mainstream media:

– Usually have difficulty making sense of the spiritual landscape;
– Sometimes engage in calculated smear campaigns;
– Often indulge in false balance, treating both sides of an argument as equal, even where the facts don’t support it.

In “The Truman Show and Finding Reliable Spiritual Resources” I write:

Spiritual seekers have needs and goals which aren’t always well-served by mainstream media. Are you a spiritual seeker? Then you can rely on populist media for the weather report, but you cannot rely on them for what we call “spiritual report.” In this they are unreliable. It’s simply not their area of expertise; plus, their emphasis on commercialism and populism acts as a heavy-handed filter of information concerning spiritual groups. Many people in the mainstream media are good and well-meaning, but spiritual topics elude them. They lack the time and interest to make sense of the spiritual landscape, so they tend to present a stereotyped view.

According to media critic Ken Sanes: “The fake landscape Truman [of The Truman Show] lives in is our own media landscape in which news, politics, advertising and public affairs are increasingly made up of theatrical illusions.”

In a society which has become highly materialistic, there may be a confluence of interests who want to preserve the notion that the main purposes of life are production, consumption, and procreation. Such interests typically act to drown out the alternative view that the main purposes of life are self-knowledge and self-giving. This effort need not be coordinated; materialists tend to instinctively reject spiritual doctrines, and to vilify people who question whether all this thing-craziness is really making people happy.

In “Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign” I write:

Why is it a problem if news and entertainment become indistinguishable? The simple answer is that news is ideally supposed to give us factual information which we need, while mass entertainment is more like bread and circuses — something to please the popular taste by pandering to the lowest common denominator of appetites and prejudices.

When news is tailored to please the popular taste, this can lead to a feedback loop in which people and events are portrayed not as they are, but as people want to view them, according to ingrained stereotypes. Likewise, there may be special interests who want to foist their world view on the general public in order to gain economic or political advantage.

Society has increasingly come to resemble a motley collection of interest groups in conflict, each of whom presents a different tableau of reality coloured by self-interest. Where self-interest reigns supreme, there is no such thing as an immaculate perception! Reality is socially constructed, and facts become more fluid than solid.

“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: they don’t alter their views to fit the facts; they alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.” — Doctor Who as played by Tom Baker, “The Face of Evil,” January 1977.

If we are deep-thinking people, we may despair of finding objective truth in the mainstream media. What we tend to find are different flavours of information tailored to appeal to different target populations who are wedded to particular beliefs which they want to see confirmed. Reality itself becomes an object of falsification, and this problem is neither liberal nor conservative, but universal.

[We should reject] the notion that only popular things are right and true and protected by human rights. Make an idea or group look unpopular, and no one will care what is done to its advocates. Excessive populism can therefore pose a danger to political, religious, and artistic freedom. It can lead to lazy thinking in which no one bothers to lift a finger to stop grave injustices, as long as the injustices are being done to some depersonalized Other who is rarely seen in mainstream media and not portrayed sympathetically.

In a populist society, rights, freedoms, and the enforcement of laws intended to protect people come to depend on popularity. If you can make a group appear unpopular, you can do a great many things to them before anyone will sound a note of protest. That’s why accurate definitions, descriptions, and information are not merely of abstract interest to scholars. These things affect how people are treated (or mistreated) every day in society. Where hate material is successfully injected into the public discourse, this spurs acts of hatred and harassment, and also encourages local law enforcement to ignore pleas for help from victims, despite top-level policies intended to foster respect and tolerance.

The mechanics of the smear campaign are remarkably similar regardless of the different ethnic, political, religious, or gender preference groups being targeted.

The glut of cheaply produced infotainment tends to cheapen the nature of reality itself, or at least how reality is perceived (as a series of shopworn memes). Just as a cardinal rule of commercial television is to keep the viewer glued to his or her set until the next commercial, the net effect of the pervasive secular media space is to keep people ensconced in a materialist world view where science, politics and business are the ruling factors, and the pursuit of pleasure is the primary leisure activity.

Does anything else exist? Yes, there are (and always have been) spiritual alternatives. But these alternatives become harder to see, hear or reify when we are thoroughly ensconced in the secular media space.

The American media space is governed by market principles like supply and demand. There is, quite simply, a market for material smearing spiritual teachers and groups, just as there was once a market for virulent anti-Catholic material in the mid-nineteenth century. … Personal vendettas, ideological obsessions, and economic greed can all move false accounts forward along the publishing conveyor belt.

And in “Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities” I write:

I greatly respect journalists and journalism, and know there are practical reasons why some journalists don’t get a story quite right. There are time pressures, and difficulties making sense of an unfamiliar subject. Particularly if the story is considered low priority, there’s always the temptation to simply cut-and-paste material from the Internet, or to invoke a familiar meme rather than doing careful research. There’s also the problem of “false balance.” Rem Rieder writes:

“No matter what the news media’s many critics believe, most journalists endeavor to be fair, to give both sides rather than choose sides. In that effort, there’s a tendency to print what someone says, print what the other side says and call it a day. The trouble is, there isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.”

[Read the full article for more quotes about false balance from Katrina vanden Heuvel, Margaret Sullivan, James Fallows, and The Economist.]

Some journalists blindly trust social media sites without recognizing that such sites are often cesspools of false and hateful depictions of religious and ethnic minorities. The Internet is particularly prone to socially constructed realities (i.e. hoaxes or fake news) which simply don’t jibe with the fact-based reality journalists are supposed to be concerned with.

The practice of creating false balance by giving equal weight to disreputable sources yields particularly destructive results when some of the claims are of an extreme and libelous nature, tending to overshadow any positive view.

When general assignment reporters on deadline cut-and-paste material from the Internet, they often produce this type of result about minority spiritual figures: “Somebody said he did this, somebody said he did that… We don’t know. [[shrug]] NEXT!” Assembly-line journalism with no sense of responsibility and no truth value.

When reports which are a confused hodgepodge of unevaluated claims are published by the media, this leads to a confused, frightened, and angry public.

The problem when journalists fail to identify hate material as such, and include it along with more reputable material under cover of “balance,” is that such hate material can easily spur a moral panic in which the targets of the hatred are irreparably harmed — if not physically, then emotionally and psychologically. The Society of Professional Journalists lists several pillars of journalism ethics, one of which is to minimize harm.

Checks and Balances

Clearly, my complaints about mainstream media are manifold. Because we have (for now) a free press, I am able to lodge them. I would add that one can watch cable news for weeks on end and never see a story critical of the pharmaceutical industry, because that industry is a huge sponsor of cable news channels. Media consolidation means that the range of viewpoints one gets from mainstream media tends to be much narrower than the actual diversity of viewpoints which exist. These are all serious problems.

Despite such problems, mainstream media remain an important component in the system of checks and balances which helps keep our nation from descending into outright tyranny. Just as government reports need to be examined critically, so do media reports. Through insight, we can gradually come to recognize different types of bias we may encounter in different types of media. There are also alternative media with which we can supplement our diet of news. These too have their problems, but they are mostly different ones not discussed here.

While there is no such thing as an immaculate perception, by interpolating between different sources of information available to us, we can often get a close approximation of the truth. This is only possible in an open society, and the notion of a free press implies considerable leeway for reporters, editors and publishers to make mistakes. That’s the distill from landmark Supreme Court decisions such as New York Times v. Sullivan. There, Justice Brennan’s 1964 opinion hearkened back to a 1925 opinion by Justice Brandeis stating:

Those who won our independence believed … that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law — the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.

— Justice Louis Brandeis, concurring opinion in Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375-376

In Sullivan, Justice Brennan quotes James Madison as saying: “Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of every thing, and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press.” Brennan then continues:

In the realm of religious faith, and in that of political belief, sharp differences arise. In both fields, the tenets of one man may seem the rankest error to his neighbor. To persuade others to his own point of view, the pleader, as we know, at times resorts to exaggeration, to vilification of men who have been, or are, prominent in church or state, and even to false statement. But the people of this nation have ordained, in the light of history, that, in spite of the probability of excesses and abuses, these liberties are, in the long view, essential to enlightened opinion and right conduct on the part of the citizens of a democracy.

— Justice William Brennan, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254

#ImWithKaty

Some of the problems with mainstream media are institutional or corporate in nature. The individual journalists hired are often intelligent, hard-working, decent, principled people who are committed to doing the best job of reporting the facts that they can within the existing structure.

Donald Trump’s bullying of individual reporters such as MSNBC’s Katy Tur (and others since) is one of the reasons I characterize the press’s dislike for him as well-earned. Katy Tur is a person of intelligence and grace. Yet after she was publicly targeted by Trump at one of his 2016 campaign rallies, she needed Secret Service protection to make it safely to her car. Bully pulpit indeed.

I myself can be a harsh critic of the media, but you have to understand the context: I am one, lone, non-commercial blogger who often sticks up for the rights of spiritual minorities. Compared to any mainstream outlet, my readership is small and non-threatening. Even if I shout, few members of the mainstream media will hear me or heed me. I will never be president, but if I were then I would certainly tone down my (occasional) rhetoric and not use a (virtual) megaphone as Mr. Trump does. As I’m fond of saying, sharp criticism should thrust up.

In 2015, I produced a short documentary (or mashup) on the topic of media smear campaigns:

But my thesis was not that every negative story is a smear. Rather, we can identify a smear campaign by certain indicia, such as lack of corroboration and use of unreliable sources who all inhabit the same echo chamber.

The bête noire of the video is a character from an old Colombo episode, played by William Shatner of Star Trek fame. He’s the epitome of the muckraking reporter intent on going for the jugular. But I would never suggest that all reporters are like him. As I state in the video: “Some people have high ethical standards, and won’t plant a false story in the media or participate in a smear campaign.”

The video presents a contrarian view of mainstream media, but such a view is helpful when we consider the power of mainstream media to shape our world. I end with a quote from cultural historian Todd Gitlin, who opines: “People have especially become aware that there’s developed a blur between entertainment and news. There’s no cavalry to come and rescue you, because the cavalry is also watching television.”

Of course, the politicians are also watching television. Most people are watching television, including the people who produce, write for, and appear on television. So there’s a hall of mirrors effect. How can we blame any particular person or media outlet for what is really a top level phenomenon? This all tends to confirm Marshall McLuhan’s central thesis about media, which is that they shape our perceptions and relations in ways which we do not control, and usually fail to understand.

Conclusion

In the era of Trump, I want to be clearer than ever that despite problems with mainstream media, their existence is essential to the functioning of our democracy. Though they are ripe for reasoned criticism, they are also worthy of staunch protection.

The average American rarely has access to high government officials. Reporters asking tough questions of the president are really standing in for the public, seeking answers where the public has a right to know and need to know.

When the present administration tries to turn the public against the press, this represents an authoritarian power grab, usurping the rightful function of the press, and implying that people should get their information solely from government officials, or from handpicked media friendly to the administration and not challenging its views. That is a prescription for tyranny.

I fear it is only a matter of time before Trump’s insane tweets identifying the media as “the enemy of the American People” lead to violence against reporters or news outlets. If Mr. Trump cannot be taught the social graces or the responsibilities of high office, someone should at least take away his smartphone. 😉

Michael Howard
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Of Further Interest

“Donald Trump and the Enemies of the American People” in The New Yorker
“‘Enemies of the people’: Trump remark echoes history’s worst tyrants” on BBC.com
“Donald Trump Had The Most Extraordinary Press Conference Of His Life, Clearing A High Bar” on huffingtonpost.co.uk
“Daily News” as sung by Tom Paxton (YouTube) — a 1964 satire on right-wing populist media which still resonates today.

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